Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Consensus on Counting the Innocent: We Can’t

"What the debate demonstrates is that we know almost nothing about the number of innocent people in prison."

read more | digg story

What do we know about this problem. First, there are innocent people in jail and prison. Second, we know that innocent people have been sent to death row. There is a high probability that innocent people have been executed. Factors contributing to the issue of innocence are police and prosecutorial misconduct, inaccurate witness identification, and ineffective legal counsel.

As the article points out, we don't have a way to accurately measure the number of innocent people. But clearly, figures such as Justice Scalia are distorting the real number. And to declare that the system works when wrongful convictions are revealed is a gross misrepresentation of reality. A significant number of wrongful convictions would never be revealed but for the efforts of individuals outside the criminal justice system. Many states, including Idaho, have no provisions for compensation in cases of wrongful conviction. I have to wonder about the kind of system Justice Scalia envisions when it takes decades for the system to correct its mistakes?

A recent Harris poll revealed that 95 percent of respondents believe that innocent people are convicted of murder. The same survey showed that adults believe that as many as 12 individuals out of every hundred convictions may be innocent.

A number of reforms have been suggested, and a few have been implemented. When it comes to the death penalty, New Jersey did not want to take a chance of executing an innocent person. The death penalty was abolished last year because it was plagued by so many problems that it could not be salvaged. The death penalty is a filed policy that must be abolished nationwide.

We cannot close prisons and jails because of the obvious need to incarcerate dangerous offenders. However, we must strive to ensure that only the guilty are punished. If not, confidence in the criminal justice system will continue to erode.

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